6th Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: Mark 1:40-45;
1 Cor 9:24-27; 2 Kings 5:1-14
REWRITING THE STORY (1)
Have you faced choices in life where, if you had been able to see into the future, you might have made a different choice? You’d like a chance to rewrite the story of your life in some ways? Listen to the opening words of a recent mystery novel:
Sometimes I think about how odd it would be to catch a glimpse of the future, a quick view of events lying in store for us at some undisclosed date. Suppose we could peer through a tiny peephole in time and chance upon a flash of what was coming up in the years ahead? … Some moments we saw would make no sense at all and some, I suspect would frighten us beyond endurance. If we knew what was looming, we’d avoid certain choices, select option B instead of A at the fork in the road: the job, the marriage, the move to a new state, childbirth, the first drink, the elective medical procedure, that long-anticipated ski trip that seemed like such fun until the dark rumble of the avalanche. (Sue Grafton, “N” Is for Noose [New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1998], pp. 3-4.)
When I read today’s gospel lesson, I can’t resist raising questions in this vein about the leper, and even more so about Jesus. The man approached Jesus for healing with an unapologetic appeal: “If you choose [there’s that word! choose], you can make me clean.” Then, after being healed, this former leper was the one with the choices. Jesus asked him to do a couple things — to follow the purity rituals that required him to show himself to a priest, and not to tell anyone that Jesus healed him — but the leper ignored these requests. Instead of going to see the priests, he ran around telling everyone about what Jesus had done.
And so I want to ask: If the leper had glimpsed the future, would he have done things differently? Would he have simply done what Jesus told him to do? If he had viewed the crowds swarming around Jesus, would he have kept the source of his healing secret? If he had known that the priests would get their snouts out of joint because Moses’ commandment about cleansing was disobeyed, and Jesus was the guy they blamed, would he have proceeded as he did? The Bible does not tell us any more about the leper and what happened to him, so we don’t know if he had regrets or was simply relieved to be free from his leprosy.
Jesus’ story we do know, and the questions persist. The leper believed that Jesus, if he chose, could heal him, and Jesus’ response to the man was, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Can you help wondering if Jesus ever thought about the future before healing that man? If he had glimpsed the choice of refusing the lepers request, would he have known that the crowds would leave him alone. If Jesus had viewed another option like ridding the man of leprosy but striking him dumb or recruiting someone to escort him to the priest, he might have saved himself a lot of grief. (Or would he?) You see, after this story, the writer of the Gospel of Mark begins to note the increasing antagonism of the religious authorities toward Jesus and his works.
I’m proposing to rewrite the story, aren’t I? Why? It is what we all would like to do and most of all for ourselves. We would like a glimpse of the future, a view of events lying ahead so we might make better decisions now, take control, guide our destinies, and especially shield ourselves from dangers that await us. But here we are in the present, protected from knowledge of the future, and powerless on our own to control ourselves and the forces of this world.
The leper and Jesus resided in their present. They took the opportunities as they came. They didn’t consult a crystal ball, or stare at leaves in the bottom of a teacup, or gaze at stars for an astrological sign.
Look at the story again. There’s something even more important here. The man suffering with leprosy approached Jesus, knelt before him and declared, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” We’ve been talking in terms of having better control of our own choices. But what is it that this leper is actually doing? “If you choose,” he says. In other words, it’s not about controlling his choice. If it was, he might have come and demanded, more like Naaman in this morning’s first lesson. Naaman, at first, wanted to be healed by Elisha on his terms. But this leper comes to Jesus and says, “If you choose.” What a gutsy move!
But that’s the true nature of prayer — in other words, having devotion to God’s compassion and will and not to our own will. That’s the crux of this story: that prayer is devotion to the compassion and will of God in Jesus, not to our own human ends or desires. It is about learning to make our choices prayerfully with God in mind through Christ Jesus. It is about letting God having the major hand in writing our stories, not us trying to write our stories on our own. It’s about having faith that the God we come to know in Christ Jesus is an unconditionally loving God, full of compassion and mercy.
So we ask, what about those who lay themselves before God and don’t get what they pray for? There are certainly plenty of those in the Bible too. Out of the depths the psalmist cries to God. Jeremiah curses the day he was born. Job argues with God because his life is ruined. But who knows better than any what it means to kneel before God and hope that God’s compassion and will might lead to another way? Jesus knows best of all what it feels like to seemingly not have your prayer answered.
At the end of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples go to the place called Gethsemane, and there he prays. The scene goes like this: “And going a little farther, [Jesus] threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him” (Mk 14:35). Jesus’ petition rings strangely familiar in our ears. He said, in words closely parallel to those from the lips of the leper, “‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want'” (Mk 14:36). In other words, “Father, if you choose…” Jesus knew what lay before him, and leaves God to write the story. Jesus didn’t utter these words in resignation, defeat, or resentment. On the contrary, they were a confession of confidence in God, a profound proclamation of the power of God, and a testimony of trust in the love of God. He knew that, even if his course was to suffer and die, that the God of life and healing would raise him again. He knew that, even if he felt he was being abandoned to the consequences of our sin, God would be there with him to see him through. To me, these words of Jesus are profound evidence that God knows our suffering and pain, that God participates in our struggles. Ultimately, Jesus demonstrates the mystery of God’s divine compassion and love for him, and through him, God’s compassion and love for us.
So, one last question, if God is so completely loving and merciful, then why does God let us suffer in the first place? Because the nature of love is that it doesn’t force itself. Love must offer itself with the choice of being returned or not. It wouldn’t be love if God made us love him. So God comes to us first and says, “If you choose.” And God has come to us in Jesus Christ to show us a human story written completely in that love, a love which our Lord Jesus did return to God, saying, “No, Father, if you choose, help me to write this story in love.”
So we do have the choice. Each day we rise with the choice of trying to write our stories ourselves. It’s that choice which continues to bring the pain and suffering of this world. It’s that choice which resisted Jesus and hung him on the cross. But the God of Jesus, the God of life and healing and peace, raised him to new life, because Jesus had made the choice to let that God write his story. And that, of course, is the other choice we have each day: to let God help us to write our stories, stories that take part in God’s power of life and healing and peace, even in the face of the suffering. We come in prayer to Jesus as did that leper, “If you choose, make me clean, make me whole, make me an instrument of your love and peace.” Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, February 12-13, 2000
1. This sermon is based on one by Ann Hoch, from Pulpit Resource, Jan.-March 2000 (Vol. 28, No. 1), edited by William H. Willimon, pp. 28-29. It has been modified with mimetic theory especially in mind: that the crucial choice is to live by God’s desires, not our own.